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Unconscious goals

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Recent evidence indicates that some goals can be, effectively, formed unconsciously. That is, specific contexts, such as a library, can effortlessly, immediately, and inevitably motivate individuals to pursue specific goals, such as to learn information.

Empirical evidence


Bargh, Gollwitzer, Lee-Chai, Barndollar, and Trotschel (2001), for example, showed how the goal to perform vigorously can be activated unconsciously. Specifically, some participants underdook a task in which they needed to locate words that are synonymous with performance, such as succeed or achieve. Subsequently, these individuals performed more effectively on a subsequent activity.

Shantz and Latham (2009) reported one of the most compelling illustrations of unconscious goals on performance. In contrast to most previous studies, they showed that unconscious goals can affect behavior in the workplace and not merely in the laboratory. In addition, they showed these unconscious goals can affect behaviors over the course of 3 hours and not only a few minutes. Finally, they did not utilize the procedure that is most often used to prime unconscious goals: the unscrambling sentence task.

Shantz and Latham (2009) examined whether a photograph of a woman prevailing in a foot race could elicit the goal to achieve and thus improve performance. First, Shantz and Latham (2009) showed this photograph does indeed prime the goal to achieve. In particular, participants received a series of instructions on a page. For some, but not all, of the participants, the picture of the runner winning appeared as the backdrop. Next, participants were asked to write three stories, prompted by the words tree, car, and dog. If participants had been exposed to the runner, they were more likely to use words that relate to achievement, such as earn, hero, and win (see word count method).

A subsequent study was then undertaken at a workplace. Participants received some written information about their task--to telephone people and to solicit donations for a client. For some of the participants, the picture of the runner winning appeared as the backdrop. In addition, some of the participants were assigned an explicit goal--to attract $1200 in donations, a level that was challenging, but plausible. Other participants were merely instructed to perform as well as they could.

Overall, compared to participants who were not exposed to the runner, participants who were exposed to the runner performed more effectively on this task: They attracted more donations. Furthermore, participants granted a specific goal--to attract $1200 in donations-?performed more effectively than participants who merely told to perform as well as possible. The effect of this specific goal did not depend on whether or not participants were exposed to the runner. That is, no interaction between conscious and unconscious goals was observed.


Unconscious goals have also been shown to enhance creativity. Specifically, Fitzsimons, Chartrand, and Fitzsimons (2008) showed that brand names can prompt unconscious goals. In particular, over time, individuals tend to form specific associations between brand names and specific motives. They might, for example, associate the brand name Apple with creativity. For example, they may be more inclined to consider Apple products at the same time as they experience the motivation to be creative. In the future, this brand might be sufficient to evoke the motivation or confidence to uncover creative solutions.

Fitzsimons, Chartrand, and Fitzsimons (2008) verified this premise. Some participants were repeatedly, but subliminally, exposed to the brand "Apple". Other participants were exposed to the brand IBM instead--a brand that, although innovative, is not perceived to be as creative and original as Apple. Next, participants completed a test of creativity: They had to uncover as many creative uses of common objects, like a brick. Exposure to the brand "Apple" prompted more creative responses to this task.


In addition to performance, studies have shown the motivation to cooperate can also be activated unconsciously. After individuals complete tasks, in which words that are synonymous with cooperation rather than competition are embedded incidentally, they act more supportively and altruistically (see Bargh, Gollwitzer, Lee-Chai, Barndollar, & Trotschel, 2001).

Furthermore, Bargh, Chen, and Burrows (1996) also showed that exposure to words that are synonymous with rudeness provoked discourteous behavior. In their study, participants completed the sentence unscrambling test (see Unscrambling sentence test). That is, participants needed to unscramble sets of five words to construct sentences of four words.

If many of these sets of words included terms synonymous with rude, participants were subsequently less inclined to act politely. In contrast, if many of these sets included terms synonymous with polite, this rude behavior was less prevalent.

Similarly, after individuals observe rude behavior, the goal to be competitive and aggressive rather than cooperative and supportive might be activated. For example, as Porath and Erez (2009) showed, after individuals witness rude behavior, they become less cooperative. They are, for example, unwilling to partake in another study, in which they will not receive credit. Furthermore, in answer to questions like "Specify many uses of a brick", their responses tend to be aggressive, such as "To hit someone over the head".

Musical lyrics can also evoke cooperative or prosocial goals, as shown by Greitemeyer (2010). In a series of studies, reported by Greitemeyer (2010), participants were exposed to lyrics that either espouse a communal, cooperative message or to lyrics that are relatively neutral. For example, in one study, participants listened to songs like "Heal the world" from Michael Jackson, "We are the world" from Liveaid, "Help" from the Beatles, and so forth, to evoke a communal orientation. In the control conditions, participants listened to "On the line" from Michael Jackson, "Octopus' Garden" from the Beatles, and so forth. Other differences between the sets of songs, such as genre and mood, were controlled. A word completion task was used to ascertain whether the participants felt aggressive or not. Exposure to a communal, cooperative message tended to curb aggressive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

Ethics and morality

After people are exposed to primes that relate to either ethical or unethical behaviour, they tend to behave more ethically. That is, both ethical and unethical primes activate a moral self-concept, in which individuals like to perceive themselves as moral and ethical.

For example, in one study, conducted by Welsh and Ordonez (2014), participants completed the word completion task, in which they needed to unscramble sets of five words to construct sentences with four words. For some participants, embedded within these sentences were words that relate to ethics and morality, such as right, fair, and good. For other participants, embedded within these sentences were words or phrases that relate to unethical behaviour, such as stolen cash. Finally, in the control condition, the sentence did not comprise ethical or unethical concepts. Next, participants read a scenario about a practice that is morally ambiguous: Employees of one organization pretended to be customers of another organization to uncover private information. Participants considered whether, as a manager, they would endorse this practice and were then instructed to justified their decision. If participants were exposed to ethical or unethical primes, they were more likely to refer to morality and ethics when justifying their decision.

Subsequent studies clarifies these findings. For example, if participants were exposed to ethical or unethical primes, they were less inclined to cheat on a test. The effect of this prime was most pronounced in circumstances in which unethical behaviour is logically beneficial: when individuals are not monitored closely and when the goal to excel is also activated.

These results are consistent with self-concept maintenance theory (Mazar, Amir, & Ariely, 2008). According to this theory, individuals tend to experience conflicting motives. On the one hand, they want to maximize the benefits they can reap from a setting. On the other hand, they want to perceive themselves as a moral person, especially when this facet of themselves is primed by reminders of morality. If this moral facet is primed, people tend to recognize the ethical complications of their choices. They will, therefore, either inhibit unethical tendencies or attempt to rationalize or justify these behaviors.

The results are also consistent with the neurocognitive model of ethical decision making, proposed by Reynolds (2006). According to this model, individuals can utilize intuition, called the X system, or conscious deliberation, called the C system, to reach ethical decisions. To clarify, over time, individuals learn to associate specific events with punishments or rewards. These associations are stored in the X system. When people are exposed to events that provoke punishments, they intuitively feel these events are unethical. In contrast, when exposed to events that are novel and, therefore, associated with neither punishments nor rewards, people cannot utilize the X system to reach decisions. Instead, they must utilize the C system and consider ethical principles carefully. These insights can then shape the X system.


When individuals are exposed to more conservative images, such as the photograph of a professional accountant, they are more likely to conform to the opinions of other people (Pendry & Carrick, 2001). That is, their primary motivation is to comply and to belong. When individuals are exposed to images that epitomize deviance, such as a punk with spiked hair and torn clothes, they become less likely to conform. Their primary motivation is to feel independent.

To illustrate, in the study conducted by Pendry and Carrick (2001), participants listened to a series of 100 or so beeps, emitted in a room with several people. Their task was to estimate the number of beeps that were presented. Unbeknownst to participants, apart from themselves, everyone else in the room was a confederate, employed by the researcher. These confederates, however, acted as participants.

In one condition, all the confederates overestimated the number of beeps. If the participants had previously been exposed to photographs of an accountant, they tended to conform: They also overestimated the number of beeps. If the participants had previously been exposed to photographs of a punk, they were not as likely to conform or to overestimate the number of beeps.


Subliminal words that relate to sleepiness have been shown to improve the capacity of people to sleep. For example, in one study, conducted by Shimizu, Sperry, and Pelham (2013), participants completed a computer task during the day. On each trial, a series of uppercase letters was presented, such as ACMTOPS . The task of participants was to decide whether the first letter was a vowel or a consonant. Immediately before each set of uppercase letters, a word appeared quickly--too quickly to be recognized consciously. For some participants, these words were related to sleep, such as nap, cozy, dreamy, serene, and restful. For other participants, these words were unrelated to sleep. Participants were then encouraged to nap in a reclining chair. If participants had been exposed to words that relate to sleep, they were more likely to report sleeping longer and their heart rate was lower. The benefit of these words was especially pronounced in people who acknowledge they do not usually sleep well.

Contextual norms

Aarts and Dijkersterhuis (2003) provided one of the most compelling examples of how environments and contexts can prime specific inclinations or behaviors. Specifically, they showed that environments tend to elicit behaviors that align with the norms of these settings.

For example, in one study, participants were exposed to a photograph of a library or railway station. Some, but not all, of the participants were told they will later need to visit this setting after the experiment is completed. Next, participants completed a lexical decision task, in which they needed to decide whether or not various strings of letters were words.

If the participants had observed a picture of a library, they could more rapidly recognize words that related to silence, like quiet, still, and whisper. Exposure to the library, therefore, evoked tendencies that are prevalent and desirable in this setting: silence. This pattern of observations, however, did not emerge unless participants imagined they would visit the environment later. Hence, the goal to engage in the environment was necessary to prime these inclinations. A subsequent study showed that individuals did, indeed, speak more quietly after exposed to this photograph of the library (Aarts & Dijkersterhuis, 2003).

Action versus inaction primes

Subliminal words that are synonymous with action, such as go, fast, and run, are more likely to promote effort than words that are synonymous with inaction, such as sleep, slow, and passive--but only in specific circumstances. In particular, action primes mobilize effort only when tasks are feasible, rather than impossible, and likely to attract significant rewards (Silvestrini & Gendolla, 2013). This tendency is adaptive: that is, people have learnt to mobilize effort only when such effort could be beneficial. < /p>

For example, in one study, conducted by Silvestrini and Gendolla (2013), participants completed a task in which an array of digits was presented followed by another number. Participants needed to decide whether this last number had appeared in the previous array. The string comprised 3, 7, or 14 digits. Embedded within each trial was a word, presented too rapidly to be recognized consciously, that was synonymous with action or inaction. Primes that were synonymous with action generated a stronger cardiac response--that is, a reduced pre-ejection period, equivalent to the interval between the beginning of ventricular excitation and the opening of the heart's left ventricular valve. This pattern, however, was not observed if the string comprised 14 digits and was impossible or if participants were not granted any incentive to succeed. Likewise, action primes enhanced performance but only when the number of digits in the array was 7 and, hence, the task was moderately difficult but feasible.

One subtly should be recognized. Silvestrini and Gendolla (2013) did not conceptualize these action primes as unconscious goals. Unlike unconscious goals, these primes were presented after participants had established their goals.

The scent of chocolate

When a scent of chocolate faintly permeates a room or store, the behavior of people changes. To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Douce, Poels, Janssens, and De Backer (2013), on same days the scent of chocolate wafted through a store that sells books, newspapers, magazines, DVDs, and lottery tickets. The scent was faint--not strong enough to be noticed immediately. On other days, this scent did not pervade the store.

Independent researchers then rated the behavior of customers. First, these researchers recorded the extent to which customers engaged in general approach behavior, in which they skim the various contents rather than confine their attention to particular items& examples included skimming the synopses of many books, lingering, and chatting with personnel. Second, these researchers recorded the degree to which customers engaged in goal-directed behavior, in which they oriented their attention to one book, asked questions to personnel as soon as they entered the store, or approached the cash register. In addition, which books customers bought was also recorded.

When a scent of chocolate wafted faintly throughout the store, customers were more inclined to engage in general approach behavior and less inclined to engage in goal-directed behavior. Furthermore, customers were more inclined to purchase genres that people feel are congruent with chocolate, like Food & Drink books and Romance novels. They were not as inclined to purchase genres that people feel are incongruent with chocolate, such as History and Crime books.

Arguably, the scent of chocolate activates goals or tendencies that relate to enjoyment. Participants are more inclined to indulge in the store. But this enjoyment conflicts with the need to achieve difficult goals, and thus goal-directed behavior subsides. Furthermore, this scent primes goals and concepts that are related to chocolate, increasing the purchase of books that people associate with this scent.


When individuals play games or participate in virtual environments, they are often assigned an avatar. These avatars may affect the goals and behaviors of individuals even after they depart from this environment.

In one study, conducted by Yoon and Vargas (2013), individuals participated in a computer game. They were assigned an avatar--either Superman or Voldemort. The degree to which they identify with the avatar was also sought. Next, supposedly as a separate study, participants completed a task with other individuals in which they needed to taste various foods. They were granted the option to pour the food that other people would taste. In particular, they could choose chocolate or chili sauce. If participants were assigned the villainous avatar of Voldemort, instead of the heroic avatar of Superman, they were more likely to pour chili sauce. Presumably, the avatar primed either heroic or villainous goals.

The placebo effect

Unconscious goals might underpin or affect the placebo effect--the finding that inert substances can improve health. Specifically, individuals often experience goals of which they are not aware, such as to feel healthier or to attract sympathy. If they expect or feel that a substance could fulfill this goal, they are more likely to detect the changes that align to this objective (Geers, Weiland, Kosbab, Landry, & Helfer, 2005). This sensitivity to these changes or improvements underpins the placebo effect.

Admittedly, many other explanations of the placebo effect have been proposed. To some extent, classical conditioning may underpin the placebo effect. People tend to associate specific feelings, such as relief, with drugs. Therefore, even inert drugs may evoke these feelings. Furthermore, expectations of an improvement may also underpin the placebo effect.

Geers, Weiland, Kosbab, Landry, and Helfer (2005), however, showed that unconscious goal are relevant as well. In the first study, both expectations and unconscious goals were manipulated. In particular, participants listened to some music. To manipulate expectations, some but not all participants were informed the music will improve their feelings. To manipulate unconscious goals, participants completed the sentence unscrambling task in which they needed to rearrange words to construct sentences. For some but not all participants, synonyms of cooperation were embedded within these sentences, to evoke the unconscious goal to cooperate. Finally, participants listened to the music and rated their mood before and after this piece.

When the unconscious goal to cooperate was evoked, the expectation that participants will feel better was especially likely to improve their mood. Presumably, this expectation aligns, rather than conflicts, with the goal to cooperate. That is, if individuals feel better, they can develop relationships more readily. Consequently, because of the goal, participants were more attuned to events that could enhance their mood. Any trivial improvements in mood, therefore, were inflated.

The remaining studies extended this finding. To illustrate, these studies examined other treatments, such as sleep therapies. Furthermore, these studies utilized other techniques to prime unconscious goals, such as stories about cooperative people. Finally, some studies showed that expectations of problems, instead of benefits, can also evoke placebo effects. Despite these variations, all studies uncovered the same pattern of findings.

Goals versus semantic primes

Many studies, indeed, have shown that unconscious goals can affect behavior. In typical studies, cues that are supposedly connected to some goal--or desirable end state--seem to prompt behaviors that represent motivation (see Aarts, Gollwitzer, & Hassin, 2004& Bargh, Gollwitzer, Lee-Chai, Barndollar, & Troetschel, 2001& Chartrand & Bargh, 1996& Fitzsimons & Bargh, 2003& Moskowitz, Li, & Kirk, 2004& Shah, 2003& Shah & Kruglanski, 2002, 2003). That is, these behaviors manifest the characteristics of goals: the effect of these cues, for example, do not decay over time (cf., Higgins, Bargh, & Lombardi, 1985& for a comprehensive review of the properties that differentiate goals from other constructs, see Forster, Liberman, & Friedman, 2007).

Indeed, several studies, such as research conducted by Cesario, Plaks, and Higgins (2006), have been conducted to ascertain whether the effects of these primes are indeed underpinning by goals rather than semantic associations. Specifically, goals and semantic associations exhibit distinct characteristics.

To illustrate, suppose the effects of these primes can be ascribed to goals. Goals seem to persist until they are fulfilled. Hence, the effect of these primes on behavior should also be sustained, until the goal is satisfied (see Forster, Liberman, & Higgins, 2005& Marsh, Hicks, & Bink, 1998). Exposure to the word "cooperation" should increase the likelihood that individuals will act supportively over an extended period of time?that is, until these individuals could satisfy this goal with some other act.

In contrast, suppose the effects of these primes can be ascribed to semantic associations. Perhaps, exposure to the word "cooperation" merely activates schemas that are associated with this term, without necessarily impinging on the goals or motives of individuals. In this instance, the effects of these primes tend to diminish over time, regardless of whether the goal is satisfied.

Cesario, Plaks, and Higgins (2006) showed that effects of primes can, at least partly, be ascribed to goals and motives. In one of their studies, only a subset of participants was exposed to subliminal pictures of elderly people. These primes should activate goals that relate to interacting with older citizens. Next, some of the participants were granted an opportunity to fulfill this goal?by imagining an interaction with an elderly man. Finally, participants completed a lexical decision task, in which they needed to ascertain whether a series of items were words or not.

If participants were exposed to subliminal pictures of elderly people, they subsequently recognized words that relate to this age group?slow, old, and forgetful, for example?more rapidly than other words. If, however, individuals had been granted an opportunity to imagine an interaction with an elderly man, this pattern of findings did not persist.

According to Cesario, Plaks, and Higgins (2006), these results indicate that exposure to an elderly prime activates the goal to interact with older people. As a consequence, they recognize any cues or concepts that relate to this goal more rapidly. This goal, when fulfilled however, is inhibited. Thus, after participants imagine an interaction with an elderly man, they do not recognize cues or concepts that relate to this goal more rapidly.

Origins of unconscious goals

Reflections on other individuals

As Fitzsimons and Bargh (2003) showed, other stimuli, in addition to words, can activate unconscious goals. In their study, participants were instructed to reflect upon someone in their lives: a best friend, parent, and so forth. Subsequently, individuals were more likely to pursue goals they associate with this person. After they described their mother, for example, participants often acted more diligently and conscientiously. Similarly, individuals show more persistence on an intelligence test, for example, after the name of a friend or relative, who values intellectual ability, is presented subliminally (Shah, 2003). Presumably, exposure to a person partly activates the goals these individuals value.

Likewise, Leander, Shah, and Chartrand (2009) showed that participants reported a greater temptation to abstain from drugs after the name of someone they knew, who also abstain from drugs, was presented subliminally. This relationship was especially pronounced if the participants felt close to this person.


Exposure to narratives and stories is especially likely to prime specific goals. That is, narratives tend to revolve around the attempts of protagonists to achieve a particular goal. Therefore, to understand narratives, individuals must sustain their attention on the goals of these protagonists. Accordingly, when individuals are exposed to narratives, the goals of protagonists are likely to be primed. Indeed, the effort that protagonists invest in their goal tends to amplify the priming of these goals.

Laham and Kashima (2013) conducted a series of studies to assess the possibility that exposure to narratives can prime goals. Specifically, participants received 28 sets of 5 words. For each set, participants needed to rearrange the words to construct sentences. In 12 of these sets, the sentences included words that relate to the goal of achievement, such as race, win, compete, athlete, best, competition, achieve, glory, quickly, succeed, master, and victory. In one condition, the sentences that participants constructed actually generated a cohesive story or narrative. In the other condition, these sentences appeared in a pseudo random order and did not seem to generate a narrative. After completing this task, participants drew their family tree for 5 minutes--as a distraction. Finally, they completed a task in which they needed to uncover words in a matrix of letters.

Participants exposed to the narrative uncovered more words. Presumably, the narrative around achievement was especially likely to prime the goal of achievement and improve performance. This effect of this narrative can be ascribed to goal priming rather than semantic priming: semantic priming is usually ineffective after a delay (Forster, Liberman, & Friedman, 2007).

In the second study, participants were again exposed to narratives or pseudorandom sentences, many of which alluded to achievement. Next, all participants completed a word search task, providing participants with an opportunity to fulfil their goal to achieve. Finally, they completed a word completion task, intended to determine whether the goal to achieve was still active. For example, if the goal to achieve is activated, people are more likely to complete the fragment - I N with the word "win" than with other words.

If participants were exposed to the narrative condition, the goal to achieve was not as accessible after completing the word search task. Presumably, the narrative condition was especially likely to activate the goal to achieve. The fulfilment of goals tends to inhibit goals--a feature that is specific to goal primes rather than semantic primes (Forster, Liberman, & Friedman, 2007). The inhibition of these goals compromised subsequent performance.

Mechanisms that underpin unconscious goals

Recently, researchers have begun to examine some of the mechanisms that underpin these unconscious goals. They have, for example, clarified the nature and purpose of the goals these primes can evoke.

Conceivably, unconscious goals may develop over time. That is, individuals often form the same goals in similar contexts. They might, for example, often develop the goal to be polite whenever they interact with a manager. Over time, these contexts, in this instance the manager, become associated with these goals, in this instance the motive to be polite. Hence, in the future, the context will prime this goal unconsciously (Bargh & Barndollar, 1996). These primed unconscious representations then shape cognitions about goals as well as subsequent behavior (for similar reasoning, see Fishbach, Friedman, & Kruglanski, 2003).

Associations with other individuals

As Walton, Cohen, Cwir, and Spencer (2012) showed, when individuals feel a sense of belonging, they tend to adopt the motivations and goals of the people to whom they feel connected. Consequently, they often become more motivated.

To illustrate, in one study, participants read about a mathematics course. Some participants were informed the mathematics course tends to facilitate relationships. They were told, for example, that classmates would study together, converse about interesting topics, speak to professors who would encourage teamwork and then celebrate the year over dinner. Other participants were informed the mathematics course tends to promote the acquisition of skill instead. Next, they completed an insoluble mathematics task and answered questions about their motivation to complete mathematics, typified by items like ?In the future, I could see myself open to a career in math?. If the course emphasized the capacity to develop relationships and connections, participants were more likely to persist on the mathematics problems and reported a greater motivation to study mathematics.

The second study was similar. However, participants were not informed the course facilitate relationships as unambiguously. Instead, they received a description of this course, supposedly written by another student. The birthdate of this student appeared subtly at the top of this report. For some participants, this birthdate matched their own birthdate, evoking a possible sense of connection with the writer. This sense of connection also enhanced persistence on a mathematics puzzle and increased the motivation to complete a mathematics course.

In the third study, participants were told to proceed to the red or blue door, after completing another measure. On the door was a label, such as ?the puzzles group? or ?a puzzle person?. If individuals were depicted as members of a ?puzzle group? instead of a ?puzzle person?, and therefore felt connected to this group, they were more inclined to persist on a subsequent puzzle. Even two weeks later, they were more inclined to choose to engage in a puzzle instead of another task.

In the final study, participants worked in pairs, although one of the individuals was actually a confederate. Some pairs were informed they shared a similar and distinct interest, such as enjoyment of the same band. Next, the confederate was asked to perform a physical task: somehow uncovering a dollar hidden in a tub. Then, the participant completed a lexical decision task, in which they needed to decide whether various strings of letters were legitimate words. If participants shared a similarity with the confederate, they recognized synonyms of ?dollar? very quickly. Presumably, the goal to retrieve the dollar was primed in these participants.

Motivated preparation account: Evidence

To explain the effects of primes and stereotypes on the behavior of individuals, Cesario, Plaks, and Higgins (2006) proposed the motivated preparation account. According to their account, when some social category is perceived, individuals become motivated to engage in the behaviors they would enact if they needed to interact with members of this collective.

To illustrate, after they are exposed to symbols that represent the elderly?such as the word grey?they become more inclined to walk slowly. This decline in the speed represents the behavior they would demonstrate if they were, indeed, interacting with someone who was older.

This account departs from other frameworks. In particular, this account diverges from the proposition that perceptual cues, such as the word grey, directly evoke behaviors that correspond to relevant social categories (e.g., Bargh & Chartrand, 1999). This model is sometimes called the perceptual-behavior link. According to this model, perceptual cues activate representations of various social categories. These representations, in turn, evoke inclinations that align with social categories.

According to this perceptual-behavior link, cues that correspond to some social category, such as elderly citizens, should always evoke inclinations that align with this collective. Cesario, Plaks, and Higgins (2006) conducted a series of studies that challenge this hypothesis. In Study 1, for example, participants were exposed to subliminal allusions to homosexual or heterosexual individuals. These stimuli were embedded in another task, in which they needed to distinguish odd and even numbers. After 130 trials, the computer putatively crashed. Participants were informed they would need to start from the beginning. Their hostility, as evaluated by the experimenter and a confederate, was then assessed.

If participants had been exposed to the homosexual primes, they exhibited more hostility. Obviously, they did not demonstrate inclinations that align with homosexuals?who are, stereotypically, regarded as effeminate rather than hostile. Instead, according to Cesario, Plaks, and Higgins (2006), they might have demonstrated the behavior that heterosexuals often exhibit towards homosexuals: hostility.

More direct evidence for the motivated preparation account was derived from Study 2. After exposure to pictures of elderly--rather than young?individuals, only a subset of participants was subsequently more likely to walk slowly. In particular, only individuals who exhibited positive implicit attitudes towards the elderly exhibited this pattern. Participants who exhibited negative implicit attitudes towards the elderly walked more rapidly after they were exposed to pictures of older people.

Presumably, if individuals adopt unfavorable attitudes towards the elderly, they might walk more rapidly, instead of slowly, to flee from any interactions with older people. This pattern of findings, therefore, is consistent with the proposition that cues activate the inclinations that individuals demonstrate when they interact with the corresponding social categories.

Furthermore, as Cesario, Plaks, Hagiwara, Navarrete, and Higgins (2010) showed, these unconscious goals also depend on affordances in the environment. That is, individuals are also primed to engage in the behaviors that are possible in their surroundings. For example, if individuals are exposed to a threatening person, their natural inclination is obviously to fight or flee. Whenever they sit in an enclosed space, curbing their capacity to flee, their inclination to fight prevails. If they sit in an open space, their inclination to flee often prevails.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Cesario, Plaks, Hagiwara, Navarrete, and Higgins (2010), White American participants completed a cognitive task. Specifically, participants were told the task was designed to assess whether they could read words while completing another activity. Strings of letters appeared in sequence, and participants needed to assess whether these items were words that related to fighting, words that related to fleeing, or non-words. These words were superimposed on pictures. The pictures were photographs of either a White or Black face.

Some of the participants completed the task within an enclosed booth--a booth in which fleeing is obviously impeded. The other participants completed the task outside, in an open field. When participants completed the task within an enclosed space, they recognized words that relate to fighting more rapidly if the picture was a photograph of a Black, instead of a White, man. That is, their inclination to fight was primed. When participants completed the task in an open field, they recognized words that relate to escaping more rapidly if the picture was a photograph of a Black man. That is, their inclination to flee was primed. These results were more pronounced in participants who associated Black men with danger.

Motivated preparation account: Evidence

Arguably, if individuals direct their attention to other people, the motivated preparation account seems to apply. In contrast, if individuals direct their attention to themselves, called a self-focus, the motivated preparation account might not apply. Instead, in these circumstances, primes might shape self-perceptions instead.

The findings that were reported by Wyer, Calvini, Nash, and Miles (2010) are consistent with this possibility. Specifically, in this study, to orient attention to other individuals, some participants were asked to reflect upon people they knew for three minutes. To evoke a self-focus instead, other participants were asked to reflect upon themselves for three minutes.

If attention was focused on other people and participants were exposed to a photograph of a hoodie, they exhibited all the hallmarks of a motivated preparation account. They sat a farther distance from someone else& they also experienced more anxiety and hostility. However, if a self-focus was evoked, this prime did not initiate these effects. Instead, the prime diminished anxiety.

Evaluative readiness

According to Ferguson (2008), however, few studies have examined the mechanisms that underpin these effects (but see McCulloch, Ferguson, Kawada, & Bargh, 2008). Ferguson (2008), however, examined one of the mechanisms that underpin the effects of unconscious goals: evaluative readiness. Specifically, unconscious goals should heighten the perceived desirability of stimuli that facilitate these objectives.

Certainly, this evaluative readiness has been established in the context of conscious goals--that is, goals that are formed deliberately. Indeed, several studies have shown that various stimuli, such as food or cigarettes, are perceived as more desirable if they correspond to some activated goal, such as the motive to eat or to smoke (e.g., Seibt, Hefner, & Deutsch, 2007& Sherman, Presson, Chassin, Rose, & Koch, 2003).

Ferguson (2008), however, confirmed evaluative readiness in the context of unconscious goals. In one study, for example, some participants were incidentally exposed to words that relate to achievement. Other participants were not exposed to these words.

Next, participants completed a task that, implicitly, examines their attitudes towards a variety of concepts--including concepts that facilitate achievement goals, such as grades, books, and libraries. Specifically, these concepts were presented subliminally and immediately before items that were visible. Participants needed to specify whether each of these visible items represents a positive or negative concept.

Interestingly, if participants had been exposed to words that relate to achievement, they could more readily recognize that subsequent items were positive if they immediately followed concepts like grades, books, and libraries. In other words, words that relate to achievement must have activated the goal to achieve. This goal, in turn, must have enhanced the perceived desirability of stimuli that facilitate this objective. Because these stimuli were perceived as desirable, items that followed immediately afterwards were also regarded as more favorable.

Furthermore, the positive evaluations of stimuli were also associated with subsequent behavior. In one study, for example, participants were exposed to words that relate to cooperation. These words enhanced evaluations of terms that facilitate cooperation, such as help and generous. In turn, positive evaluations of these terms was positively related to subsequent manifestations of cooperation: they were willing to spend more time on additional surveys (Ferguson, 2008).

According to Ferguson (2008), these unconscious goals must influence the accessibility of any positive memories that relate to these stimuli. That is, evaluations of some stimulus, such as a dog, depend on which features or associations are salient, such as puppies versus rabies (e.g., see Bassili & Brown, 2005& Dasgupta & Greenwald, 2001& Fazio, 2001& Livingston & Brewer, 2002& Mitchell, Nosek, & Banaji, 2003). Hence, when unconscious goals are formed, the beneficial features of stimuli that are germane to this objective become more salient& the stimulus, therefore, is perceived as more desirable.

These insights also align with many other theoretical propositions. These insights conform to the proposition that goals should increase the sensitivity of individuals to stimuli they desire--not merely stimuli they expect (cf., Bruner, 1957).

Factors that moderate the impact of unconscious goals

Conscious goals

Stajkovic, Locke, and Blair (2006) showed that unconscious goals are more effective when they align with conscious goals. In their study, participants needed to rearrange sentences--a task that can be used to prime specific motivations. Words that were synonymous with achievement were included to activate the unconscious goal to strive. These primes enhanced persistence on a subsequent task?-a task to name as many uses of a common object as possible?-especially when the experimenter asked individuals to exceed 12 rather than 4 answers. In other words, the unconscious goal to persist was more likely to impinge on behavior when participants consciously attempted to persevere as well.

Duration of the primes

In many studies, to evoke unconscious goals, subliminal words are presented (e.g., Radel, Sarrazin, Legrain, & Gobance, 2009). In practice, however, subliminal words can seldom be presented. The presentation of subliminal primes, for example, is often considered to be unethical.

The question, then, becomes whether visible primes are as effective as subliminal primes. Preliminary evidence indicate that visible primes are also effective, provided that participants are not cognizant of the potential effects of these words (Dijksterhuis, Aarts, & Smith, 2005).

Presence of humans

Specific environments will not always activate norms and goals that correspond to that setting. A library, for example, will not always activate the tendency to behave quietly. Instead, as Joly, Stapel, and Lindenberg (2008) showed, these environments will elicit these inclinations only if people are present or the remnants of humans are salient.

To illustrate, in one study, Joly, Stapel, and Lindenberg (2008), participants were exposed to one of four photographs: a picture of an empty restaurant, a picture of a restaurant with dinner served but without patrons, a picture of a restaurant with patrons, or a train station. The participants studied the picture for 30 seconds. Next, they answered a series of questions on whether they feel inclined to lower their voice in the restaurant, wash their hands, wait patiently, on so forth.

Individuals were more inclined to endorse these behaviors--that is, they were more likely to champion behaviors that are common in restaurants?-if they were exposed either to a picture of a restaurant with patrons or a picture of a restaurant with dinner served. The picture of an empty restaurant did not elicit these inclinations (Joly, Stapel, & Lindenberg, 2008).

Accordingly, an environment will activate the norms that characterize that setting, but only if this context demonstrates evidence of human activity. In other words, when the environment relates to other humans, these norms are more likely to be activated. However, if participants had formed the goal to visit these environments, this evidence of human activity was not as likely to affect behavior (Joly, Stapel, & Lindenberg, 2008).


Radel, Sarrazin, Legrain, and Gobance (2009) showed that individuals who report elevated levels of mindfulness were less susceptible to primes that were designed to evoke unconscious motivations (for a definition of mindfulness, see Mindfulness). In their study, students were randomly assigned to one of two psychology classes, both focusing on the development of social relationships during childhood.

The classes, in which 22 slides were presented over the course of an hour, were identical, apart from the subliminal words that were presented. To activate an autonomous orientation, 86 words, synonymous with autonomy, were interspersed among the 22 slides. The words, which included "interested", "willing" and "free", were displayed for 32 ms and were followed by a 16 ms mask of xs. To activate an orientation in which participants felt controlled rather than autonomous, the same procedure was utilized, but the primes were synonymous with obligation and constraint.

In addition, the mindfulness of these students was also assessed. A French translation of a measure, developed by Brown and Ryan (2003) and called the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale, was administered. A typical item is "I find myself doing things without paying attention" (reverse scored).

In this study, when students were exposed to subliminal words that were synonymous with autonomy, their performance on a subsequent examination was superior. This effect of these words, however, was confined to individuals who reported limited levels of mindfulness (Radel, Sarrazin, Legrain, & Gobance, 2009& for analogous findings, see L?vesque and Brown (2007).

According to Radel, Sarrazin, Legrain, and Gobance (2009), mindful individuals direct more of their attention to the immediate context. To guide their choices and behavior, these individuals will, therefore, deliberate consciously. This conscious deliberation might nullify the effects of unconscious orientations.

Corrections to persuasive attempts

As reported by Laran, Dalton, and Andrade (2010), company slogans can induce behaviors that contradict the intent of messages. To illustrate, in the United States, people associate the retailer Walmart with savings. Indeed, the slogan of Walmart is "Save money. Live better". Exposure to the brand name indeed curbs spending. However, exposure to the slogan "Save money. Live better" actually increases spending. That is, these slogans are perceived as tactics that manipulate consumers. In response, consumers form the unconscious goal to correct or counteract the effects of these slogans.

Laran, Dalton, and Andrade (2010) conducted a series of five studies to validate this reasoning. Participants were exposed to a set of brands, slogans, or sentences that were associated with spending money, saving money, or neither of these inclinations. For example, brands associated with saving included Kmart and the Dollar Store& brands associated with spending included Tiffany, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and Saks Fifth Avenue. Slogans associated with saving included "Saving keeps you going" or " It is a matter of price"& slogans associated with spending included " The place for excellence" or "Luxury, you deserve it." Participants were misled to believe their task was merely to memorize these items. Later, participants imagined the extent to which they are willing to spend money while shopping, ranging from $0 to $500.

As hypothesized, brands associated with saving reduced spending, where brands associated with spending encouraged spending. However, slogans generated the opposite pattern of results: slogans that prompted saving actually encouraged spending and vice versa.

The second study was the same, except some participants were instructed to evaluate the extent to which the slogan is creative, potentially distracting individuals from the manipulative intent of these messages. Other participants were instructed to evaluate the degree to which the slogan is persuasive to highlight this manipulative intent. If attention was distracted from the persuasive intent of messages, the slogans elicited behaviors that are congruent, rather than incompatible, with the content. That is, slogans exhibited the same effect as brands.

Likewise, as Study 3 showed, when participants consider the possibility that brands, like slogans, can also be manipulative, the inclinations of these individuals also contradicted the message. Specifically, participants were exposed to various logos and slogans. Some participants were instructed to imagine these logos or slogans were embedded in other ads, all selling products?-images that highlight the persuasive intent of these brands. Other participants imagined these logos or slogans appeared in magazines, without any explicit emphasis on advertising or selling. Consistent with the hypotheses, if participants recognized that logos are intended to persuade consumers, brands that correspond to saving encouraged spending and vice versa.

Study 4 demonstrated these effects are observed because participants form unconscious goals to offset the impact of persuasive messages. To assess this possibility, participants completed a task after exposure to the slogans, some of which were intended to satiate the goal to counteract these biases. In particular, to satiate this goal, participants wrote about a time in which they resisted a persuasive message. Furthermore, in this study, some of the brands were familiar whereas other brands were unfamiliar& otherwise, the procedure mirrored the previous studies.

If participants did write about a time in which they resisted a persuasive message, slogans did not elicit inclinations that contradict the message. This finding implies that slogans tend to activate the goal to resist persuasion. Once this motivation is fulfilled, the usual effect of slogans dissipates. Indeed, the final study showed that subliminal exposure to the word "slogan", coupled with a sentence, was sufficient to initiative behaviors that contradict this message. Accordingly, participants tend to associate slogans with the inclination to resist a message.


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